NEW ARAB WARS
and Anarchy in the Middle East
pp. PublicAffairs. $26.99.
to pinpoint the moment that the Muslim world cracked, provoking credible talk
of a third world war. It may have been in December 2010, when a Tunisian fruit
seller set himself on fire, igniting first a people’s rebellion and hope around
the Arab world, then violent counterreaction and armed conflict.
It may have
been March 2003, when American tanks cranked north toward Baghdad, starting a
war that was not well thought out and helping to spawn an insurgency that
consumed first Iraq, then Syria. It is not a stretch to say the Iraq war has
now reached Paris and Brussels. But the date is less important than the
dynamic, ever widening.
in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen became proxies for larger conflicts: Saudi
Arabia versus Iran (with Qatar and Turkey thrown in, and Israel still eyeing
Iran). Shia fought Sunni. Britain, France and a reluctant America fired shots
in Libya. Russia showily shored up the president of a Syria torn apart,
probably forever, like the colonial borders that created the countries of the
region after World War I.
Marc Lynch’s “The New Arab Wars” strongly suggests that global calamity has
been averted via one corner of human wisdom: President Obama. No matter the
suffering and instability there, he just has not seen the Middle East in
America’s existential interest.
understood deeply that American military power could not solve the region’s
conflicts and that limited intervention would only pave the way to
ever-escalating demands for more,” Lynch argues. “He understood the iron logic
of the slippery slope from limited intervention to full-scale quagmire.” Or
president’s critics would have it differently: that if he had pursued an
earlier, more muscular policy he would have both lessened much suffering and
checked the further rise of terror. The Islamic State is no “J.V. team,” as
Obama had it, though what exactly it is remains unsettled. Lynch, a professor
of political science at George Washington University, is not an unbiased
observer: He advised the Obama campaign in 2008 on the Middle East.
about the region resonate strongly now because Obama’s era is nearly over. Both
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have said that Obama was too restrained, that,
as is often said, he over learned the lessons of Iraq. This despite the intervention
in Libya (which Clinton supported) and America’s bombing and growing troop
presence in Iraq and Syria.
its biases, “The New Arab Wars” is a useful book for this moment. Though it was
written by an academic — for better or worse, Lynch’s prose reads that way —
its aims are currency and concision. In barely 250 pages of text it covers the
Arab Spring’s full, terrible descent into renewed dictatorship and wars that
few could envision. Saudi Arabia shelling Yemen?
telling, the Middle East is a region where local forces dominate, interbreed
and fester. Egypt’s struggle with democracy, Islam and military rule plays out
in one corner, while the main event has become the increasingly open antagonism
between Saudi Arabia and Iran, each backing allies around the region to deeper
division. And Lynch recounts the important new front of social media, in all
its complicated power to democratize and polarize, to render human beings numb
at the repeated sight of the worst atrocities possible.
not an optimist. He sees no end soon, predicting even stronger strains of
Islamic extremism as nations, sects, tribes, terror groups and generations all
jostle. The lesson, he thinks, is clear if unlikely to be absorbed: The rest of
the world, and especially whoever replaces Obama, should stay out. “America can
be more or less directly involved,” he writes, “but it will ultimately prove
unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their
Ian Fisher, now an assistant editor at The Times,
spent 10 years as a foreign correspondent, including two years in Iraq before
and after the 2003 invasion.